Friday, 25 October 2013

Russell's Revolution

This blog is, not so much a riposte as my thoughts on Russell Brand's editorial for this month's New Statesman magazine and subsequent interview with Jeremy Paxman which was doing the rounds on t'interweb this morning. I recommend reading the article at least before continuing otherwise you might find your eyes glazing over with incomprehension at what the hell I'm dribbling on about.

Let me begin by saying I'm a big fan of Russell Brand. I love his style, as is evidenced by the frequency with which big men with gold chains and Le Coq Sportif tracksuit bottoms on shout 'fuck me it's Russell Brand' at me in the street, I love his stand-up and other comic misadventures but most of all I admire his intellect and his eloquence. In the latter regard he reminds me of a rather more flamboyant, pop-star dating, ex-junkie Christopher Hitchens. As much as I'm a fan of his comedy it's when he takes a more serious approach on matters, whether it's society's approach to drug addiction, politics or spirituality that I find him the most engaging. That being said, we don't always share similar views and whilst I found his editorial for New Statesman, which he is guest editing this month, a very thought provoking read, there were a couple of points with which I found myself pulling a face in disagreement and others, though they were less numerous, where I expressed our disparity of views in a more vocal and expletive-ridden manner.

The first countenance contorting revelation in the article is that Russell doesn't vote. Someone in my twitter feed cynically opined whether this was because he's now holed up in Hollywood but the Paxman interview reveals that he never has and never will. This irks me somewhat. I'm very much of the opinion that if you don't vote, if you don't engage, then you can't really complain about what you get. Brand though, sees voting as an act of compliance to a broken system, in which there is nothing to vote for and no real alternatives, and to a certain extent I find myself agreeing with him. However, whilst it might seem a groaningly obvious choice of source for a quote, Churchill is said to have remarked that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" and he's right. Democracy sucks, but it sucks marginally less than the alternative systems. Though it's not entirely clear what alternative Brand is offering. He's certainly unhappy with the choices we've got (and generally speaking, who isn't) but he gives no real insight as to what he'd prefer. He rightly protests on Newsnight that it's kind of difficult to devise a whole new political system on the back of a beer mat in the pub, though I daresay the public houses of Britain are rife with such things of a Saturday evening, but can anyone genuinely come-up with a fairer system than the democratic principle of one man, one vote? Sure it's not perfect and occasionally has the air of being gaffer taped together with the speedo wound back and sawdust in the transmission but generally speaking it does work in so far as that the people of any given constituency get the candidate they voted for. I'd say to Russell if you don't like the choices at the ballot box and care so passionately about people and politics, stand for election yourself, tell people your values and principles and let them decide if they agree enough to have you represent them. 

Brand's right in that apathy is the biggest obstacle to societal and political change but nothing will work better to change that apathy into the rage he desires than people increasingly feeling like their voices aren't being heard or they aren't being properly represented. Uniquely in the UK I think, the British people will put up with a hell of a lot but eventually we will say enough is enough and go about changing things fairly, effectively and for the better. It wouldn't surprise me to see more and more independent candidates standing in elections to come and is in fact something I'd love to see. The biggest problem with the current system for my money is MP's voting in the interests of their party rather than in the interests of the constituents. So bring on the independents and do away with the whips, those whom we democratically elect to represent us should ultimately answer to us and not their party leaders.

Brand's right in that apathy is the biggest obstacle to societal and political change but nothing will work better to change that apathy into the rage he desires than people increasingly feeling like their voices aren't being heard or they aren't being properly represented. Uniquely in the UK I think, the British people will put up with a hell of a lot but eventually we will say enough is enough and go about changing things fairly, effectively and for the better. It wouldn't surprise me to see more and more independent candidates standing in elections to come and is in fact something I'd love to see. The biggest problem with the current system for my money is MP's voting in the interests of their party rather than in the interests of the constituents. So bring on the independents and do away with the whips, those whom we democratically elect to represent us should ultimately answer to us and not their party leaders.

There is an air of anarchy in Brand's arguments, which I applaud and would urge him to run with, but sadly this is forestalled by his leftist ideologies. His passion for socialism and desire for the redistribution of wealth particularly is by it's very nature authoritarian. He decries Cameron and Osborne for taking the EU to court in defence of bankers bonuses and whilst our initial instinct is to rally against this, do we really want to give the government, whether it be Westminster or Brussels, the power to decide what and how private businesses pay their employees? Big business may be bad (though I don't fully subscribe to this view) but if you value freedom and liberty then big government is certainly worse. Indeed, many of the problems people have with big business stem from them being able to manipulate big government in their favour. The answer is not to make government bigger but to reduce it so it's an ineffective tool for businesses to utilise.
I share Brand's view that we need to look after the poverty stricken, not just in this country but the world over, and the planet that we find ourselves clinging to, but I reject the notion that we need the government to tell us how to, or indeed make us, do this. If you'll indulge me in a little intellectual posturing by paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, those who sacrifice liberty for security will ultimately have neither. The argument can be made that the selfishness and individualism that Russell decries is perpetuated more by left wing socialism than right wing libertarianism. All too often we hear of the suffering of our fellow human beings and immediately cry 'what is the government doing about it?' Well balls to the government, what are YOU doing about it? If the plight of your fellow man worries you, why look to those in suits in the house of commons to alleviate? Go help! Donate to a charity, volunteer, take the responsibility you're trying to shirk onto the shoulders of your elected representatives for yourself. (A, frankly perfect, example of this idea can be seen in this video, in which Piers Morgan challenges Penn Jillette on his libertarianism. Morgan expresses his outrage that so many people are living in poverty in America to which Penn fantastically responds "and I assume you're helping them." He goes on to correctly say that if 1 out of 7 Americans are living on food stamps then that's 6 out of 7 Americans that can help them. Now, can you remember what I was saying before I opened those parenthesis? Oh yes, socialism). Socialism isn't the compassionate option, it's the lazy option. If the idea of a city fat cat earning millions whilst some families rely on food banks rightly offends you, don't look to government to intervene, particularly if you believe them to be completely self-serving, appeal to the millionaire's humanity and ask him to contribute to private social programmes that will help those less fortunate. Believe it or not, just because someone happens to be rich, that doesn't make them a cold-hearted bastard. Globally, the bastards are an incredibly small number. If you take the 6 billion people on the planet, rounding off the numbers, and take away the bastards, I fully believe that you'll be left with 6 billion that are good. I don't find myself leaning towards libertarianism out of selfishness but because I believe people will help each other without the need for the government to tell them to do so. I'm not cynical enough to be a socialist, nor do I want my compassion outsourced to a government welfare programme. If we do need a social paradigm shift, it's not towards left wing, big government socialism, but towards right wing, libertarian, humanist principles.

Which brings me to the other main point I found myself profusely disagreeing with Brand on. He renounces atheism as a stumbling block to social co-operation. The paragraph in full says:

"The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation. The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation."

This is the part that got me worked up and had me gripping my cup of tea with a little too much gusto. It's no surprise however, given Brand's desire to invoke a higher governing power in a bid to solve the world's problems, that he would see atheism as a problem, rather than the ideal mindset with which to tackle said issues. By acknowledging that in the absence of a divine babysitter we have a personal responsibility to the planet and each other, we can properly motivate ourselves to tackle the ecological and societal problems that humanity faces. It's far easier to see the suffering of our fellow primates and be OK with not doing anything about it if you believe that a mystical sky fairy will take care of them. Atheism, and more specifically, humanism, is the more effective and more compassionate option. Russell's right when he says we need a new, unifying ideology, but he's 100% dead wrong when he invites us to search for a new common mythology with which to motivate us. Why do we need a mythology to unite us at all? Isn't the fact we share a planet and a gene pool enough? The most effective way to solve any problem is to take a purely rational, materialist, logical approach. We must tackle the issues we face ourselves and not palm off the responsibility to a governing power, celestial or otherwise.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The problem with religious moderates.

This morning I watched a program on 4OD entitled Scientologists at war, which detailed the experience of Marty Rathbun, an ex-member of the church of Scientology who has since been harassed for leaving the church and practising the religion independently. Before watching I was unaware of so called independent Scientologists but I suppose, like all religions, there are those people who will be called moderate and don't follow their faith completely, preferring just to stick to the bits they approve of. This to me, rather than helping the issue, actually puts a reasonable face on idiocy and makes the idea of faith and believing whatever you choose to, despite evidence to the contrary, more acceptable.

Marty Rathbun is obviously well-intentioned. In the program he condemns the intimidation and frankly torture, that he himself once advocated and ordered as the number two guy in the church of Scientology, and rightly so. However, the program doesn't say whether or not Marty still believes that an alien overlord named Xenu deposited frozen 'thetans' ie souls, on earth near volcanoes which were then destroyed by a series of nuclear explosions, forcing the thetans to inhabit human bodies which must then be purified by Scientology's practice of 'auditing'.

No I didn't make that up, that's actually the mythology underpinning Scientology. Apparently L Ron Hubbard wasn't just a science fiction writer, he was a really bad one.

This is the crux of my point. Do we really think it's acceptable to believe such nonsense? People should be allowed to of course, but it should be ridiculed whenever it's brought up. As should the belief that a Palestinian Jew was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. Or that an Arab named Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse. Religion, all religions, without exception, have ridiculous stories at the heart of them and yet there is still a sense in society that it's wrong to criticise someone's religion. Why? We can criticise someone's politics or their economics, but when it comes to religion, that's out of bounds.

It's funny too, how a Christian for example, will clearly laugh at the Scientology myth, but when you point out that their religion is based on the idea of virgin births, resurrections and people living to be 900 years old, they will defend it wholeheartedly. Scientology is no more crazy than Christianity, or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism, or any of the ancient religions you wish to choose; Greek, Roman, Egyptian etc etc, it's just plain and simply more modern, and that's it. Since the beginning of recorded history - defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6000 years ago - historians have managed to catalogue somewhere in the region of 3700 supernatural beings and 2870 of these can be considered gods. The only difference between me and a Christian therefore, is I don't believe in 2870 gods and he doesn't believe in 2869. A Christian feels exactly the same way about Zeus as I do about Yahweh.

So yes, moderate religious people should be praised for condemning and ignoring the evil parts of their specific doctrine but that doesn't mean that the bits in their particular holy book that don't call for death or slavery or the worship of our alien overlords aren't open to rational criticism either. By shaking off the evil bits they've only done half a job. Toss aside the pseudo-science, the metaphysics and the mythology too and think critically about the world! Embrace and wonder at the unknown. I'm going to finish this blog post with what is probably my favourite Christopher Hitchens quote:

"The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way, is the offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk, all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom, I wouldn't have it any other way and I'd urge you to look at those who tell you that you're dead 'til you believe as they do, (what a terrible thing to be telling to children) and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority, don't think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poison chalice, push it aside, no matter how tempting it is, take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way."

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lads Mags and Bags

On Monday the Guardian published an article pinned to a letter signed by ten lawyers and a QC threatening supermarkets with legal action unless they stopped stocking so called 'lads mags', claiming displaying the magazines "in workplaces, and/or requiring staff to handle them in the course of their jobs may amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010."
The letter is written in support of the Lose The Lads Mags campaign started by UK Feminista and Object, two lobby groups that have a history of opposing free speech. Indeed, Object lobbied Leveson to grant the new press regulator the power to investigate third party complaints from 'representative women's groups', though who they claim to represent besides a few extreme feminists I'm not sure.

The crux of their complaint is that magazines such as Nuts and Zoo are harmful to women, exploitative of the models who appear in them, and promote a misogynistic and sexist culture amongst their readership. This is a view shared by the likes of Harriet Harman who wants to ban page 3, for example. It never occurs to any of these so called feminists (we'll get to that shortly) that the girls who appear on the pages of these magazines, might actually enjoy their work. Most girls who work in this industry that I've come across appear to be genuinely enthusiastic about it, get excited for new shoots, love appearing in magazines and newspapers (though I use the term newspaper extremely loosely in this context), and love the lifestyle it affords them. Let's not forget that they can make a hell of a lot of money doing this type of work. By extension too, lap dancers/strippers - some of whom supplement their income by doing glamour modelling - at least the ones I've met (when you play in hard rock bands, you have the pleasure of meeting these people from time to time) take a lot of pride in their work. You have to be incredibly fit to work in an industry like that. Where your work depends on your image, taking great pride in your appearance and your figure is a must and the hours these girls must spend in the gym, maintaining their physique is ridiculous. Not to mention those that have a talent for pole dancing as well. There is immense skill in that particular art, not to mention a herculean amount of upper body strength.

It appears to me that complaints of these types tend to originate from groups that call themselves 'feminist' when, in reality, they're anything but. In fact, they're far more conservative than they are liberal. Feminism was once about the empowerment of women, and their sexual liberation too! However, today there seems to be an increasing number of feminists who, far from wanting women to have the power to do whatever they want, including flaunting what god (or their surgeon) gave them, want women, and men, to become increasingly gender neutral. There is nothing unequal or oppressive about celebrating femininity, masculinity and the differences between the sexes. There's also a certain hypocrisy at play here too. The lawyers aren't going after say Attitude mag, which is basically FHM for girls. Plus, if they're concerned about women becoming depressed by comparing themselves to the models, there's a far greater problem to be addressed with fashion mags and their size zero models than the women who appear in lads mags, curves and all. Also what's the difference between the cover of the Sunday Sport and say, an M&S underwear ad? Or the Diet Coke ads for that matter?

But the main point here is this: it's just a magazine. There's nothing illegal about the retailers stocking it. The majority of places put the mags on the top shelf. There's never any hardcore sex pictures, it's just topless modelling - much like David Beckham's underwear ads, and I'm not hearing any women complaining about them. Finally, and most importantly, these are privately owned stores. If someone really, really has a problem with handling them, don't work there. It's HUGELY unreasonable to expect massive national retailers to stop stocking a well-selling range of magazines because of the vocal nature of a prudish minority. If you don't like the mags don't buy them. If you find Page 3 offensive, don't buy the Sun. But don't force your particular hang-ups on the rest of us. Some girls like to get their kit off, feel sexy, and earn a bucket load of money posing for pictures, and believe it or not, some of us enjoy looking at them. It's not an outrageous notion to believe that men can find women sexually attractive and appreciate that they have a brain, personality, thoughts and feelings as well.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Woolwich & Faith

Following the attack in Woolwich yesterday, there was an interesting debate taking place on Facebook around the nature of Islam, violence and the problem of tarring all muslims with the same metaphorical brush. This is what I had to say on the matter. 

The problem here is faith. Faith is considered a virtue and something that should be respected, but that is the complete antithesis of an intelligent, critical thinking human being. Are all Muslims the same? No, of course not. The British Council of Muslims has come out and condemned the attack that happened in Woolwich yesterday. However, all Muslims, all Christians, all Jews, all Buddhists etc etc believe that it's ok to believe in something for which there isn't a single iota of evidence. They believe and respect Faith. So how can ANYONE who has faith condemn the attackers yesterday, or the 9/11 terrorists, or the London bombers, or the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition, or Hamas, or Hezbollah and so on, when they are all acting on Faith? I'm reminded of a great quote from Derren Brown, of all people; "Moderate religious people may of course express distaste for such violence, pretending that the clear calls for grotesque and violent behaviour in their sacred book aren't there and cherry-picking the nice bits. But they are still guilty of not opening up the subject of belief to rational discourse, and in doing so are part of the machinery that leads to all the ugliness caused by fundamentalism."

Let's not forget the main difference here. If a serial killer decides to murder a bunch of people, or a rapist indulges in his particular dark art, they know that it's wrong. They hide it and try to get away with it. The difference is, religious extremists genuinely believe that what they are doing is morally right and that they are commanded to do so by their particular god. Everyone condemns their acts, but very few people condemn the manner in which they reached the desire to commit their atrocities, namely, religious faith. Of course there are bad atheists too, but I defy anyone to find a single act of terror committed in the name of atheism, and therein lies the difference. As Steven Weinberg said "With or without religion you will have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

As for 'kicking them out', you can't deport someone for being an idiot - no matter how appealing that may seem - and complaining that idiots can claim benefits etc is just as bigoted and intolerant as the religion one seeks to condemn. We should of course deport the likes of Abu Qatada, who is wanted to stand trial for terrorism elsewhere but due to the nature of the threat, we can't just worry about terrorists that are home grown. It is a global problem and should be treated as such. As for anyone who commits crimes in this country then they should of course face the full extent of the law, and I'm inclined to agree with the train of thought which says that sentencing in general in this country is far too lenient. If there are foreign born criminals, the question of whether we lock them up here or deport them to a country where they will be free to commit further crimes is quite a moral and ethical dilemma and one that I'm not sure I have the answer to. But you can't deport people for believing in a god any more than you can for denying evolution or believing in fairies. 

For any apologists that have somehow found their way here, I would leave you with a thought experiment devised by the late great Christopher Hitchens, to which there has yet to be an answer:

First, think of an immoral act that could only have been done in the name of, or because of, religion.

I daresay you've got a few.

Now, try to think of an immoral act that could only be done by someone of no religious faith whatsoever.

Answers on a postcard.


Monday, 20 May 2013

To blog or not to blog... and indeed, what to blog?

When one decides to write a blog, there seems to be two approaches: either set up a single issue blog on something you're involved in or passionate about or write about the minutiae of your life. Whilst I'm sure the latter approach can be quite cathartic, I've never really had much interest in reading them, much less writing one. There's a great quote from Eleanor Roosevelt which says; "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people" and whilst I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say I have a great mind (I daresay this blog will soon attest to that) it is certainly an aspiration and so ideas shall be the main focus point of my mental diarrhoea here. 

I've been toying around with what the subject matter for this blog will be for a couple of months now. I'm writing it primarily as a way of keeping my hand in, and improving, my writing but also to further explore some of the ideas I come across whilst debating elsewhere on the web, (mainly twitter: @philmyth), and in life in general. For the most part I wanted this to be a single issue blog, rather than a personal one but if I made it a political blog say, I wouldn't be able to log on and write about theology or music or morality or video games or any of the other things that interest me. So whilst this blog will mainly contain posts on atheism and my exploration of libertarianism, I might throw in some commentary on a few other subjects as and when the mood takes me. Rest assured though that even if you read all my posts here, you'll still be clueless as to what I've had for dinner! Just for kicks though, I may stick a 'currently reading/playing/listening to at the end of each post. It will serve no purpose but I don't want this blog to be completely devoid of any personal touches.

The best thing about the Internet so far as I'm concerned is that it allows you to converse and exchange ideas with people from all over the world, from all different backgrounds and with all manner of different viewpoints. I hope this blog will allow me to do that, so that I may better inform and educate myself, and perhaps give someone else a different perspective to consider than they have before.

As for the title, mythology won't be the subject matter here (although Bronze Age/Christian mythology may crop up from time to time in some of the more atheistically focused musings!), it's merely a reference to my stage name 'Phil Myth', from my time playing in bands. I've been using it for a good few years now and there are a few people who know me by that and don't even know my real surname! Anyways, it's stuck and I've grown rather fond of it (what's life without whimsy eh?!) so it stays, at least for now.

I think this will do as an introduction to what I intend to write about here. I should get my first proper blog up either tonight or tomorrow. I hope you enjoy reading them and will indulge me in a bit of debate now and then! Feel free to follow me on Twitter if the mood takes you; my handle is @philmyth, and I shall speak to you all soon!